Guide to conflict management at work
Lacking the intimacy of personal relationships, conflicts at work can be especially difficult to navigate. The unilateral power relations, the coldness of the corporate world and the time we dedicate to work make the challenge even greater. In this guide we will talk about how it is possible to incorporate some practices to improve conflict management at work and in life.
What is a conflict?
A conflict can be defined as a state of disagreement between two or more people. It usually happens when the parties fail to understand each other, or when strategies to meet personal needs collide. Some aspects presented below from the corporate world make managing conflicts at work especially difficult.
Authority and superior-subordinate relationship
One of the most effective ways to deal with conflict is good old talk. But it is difficult to create a safe and vulnerable space when one participant has much more power than the other. If you've ever tried to have a conversation with your boss about a raise, you should understand what I'm saying.
I believe that good conflict management at work involves facing these dissonances (between people), instead of running away from them or suffocating them. The hierarchy and the difference in authority between a superior and his subordinate make conflict resolution practically impossible. That is why we believe that practices that seek give autonomy and distribute authority can be so valuable.
The traditional corporate environment discourages vulnerability. Popular culture says that showing confidence in your work is important, especially if you are in a leadership position. Doubts and uncertainties should be left outside the firm's door, as well as personal feelings and issues. If you are a manager, you are expected to have answers, not doubts.
Brené Brown, professor, researcher and star of one of the most popular TEDs in history, thinks differently. According to her, vulnerability is about courage, not weakness. To be vulnerable is to be willing to show a part of yourself, despite uncertain results. Brené also says that vulnerability is the cradle of creativity and innovation, because without taking risks, these two things do not exist.
The low vulnerability of the work environment prevents people from showing themselves in full. Without vulnerability there is no connection. And without a connection, it is difficult to have good conflict management.
Teamwork (tribalism and groupthink)
Virtually all organizations operate by dividing the structure into different teams, or groups of people with shared goals. These teams can tend to tribalism or groupthink, two phenomena that can intensify or hide conflicts at work.
Tribalism, according to Ray Immelman, is the oldest form of human organization. Organizations, however evolved they may be, are always subject to the formation of tribes and subtribes. By being part of one, we start to associate our personal identity with the identity or ideology of the group. The group's goal becomes ours, and suddenly we find ourselves so connected to the purpose of the tribe that we are fighting an enemy (usually another tribe) that we have not consciously chosen. This behavior can be observed in the traditional “cliques”, so common in the corporate world. The formation of teams and groups at work can strengthen tribalism, which ultimately intensifies conflicts between groups.
Teamwork can also generate some interesting phenomena, which we collectively call Groupthink. We are social beings and when grouped, we tend to conformity and acceptance. Being the dissonant voice in a team is not a comfortable situation. When seeking agreement, we can oppress the emergence of creative and divergent ideas. And this is nothing more than a way to avoid or postpone conflicts at work.
Why can suffocating or postponing a conflict at work be bad?
When we throw a conflict under the rug or postpone a difficult conversation, we are dramatically increasing the chance of the situation becoming untenable in the long run. For a simple reason: we started climbing the ladder of inference without being aware that our beliefs affect the data we select to observe.
When faced with a potential conflict, we see a dissonance between what we have and what we would like. This usually involves making assumptions from what we observe in the other's behavior. For example:
It is the second time that Walter is late. He's not compromised.
Note that the first sentence is an observation of a fact. The second is a judgment, or an inference. We will never know whether or not Walter is engaged without asking him. In addition, the definition of committed it also varies according to who observes the situation.
If we make this judgment of Walter's behavior without validating with him, we will start to act as if the judgment were true. Since Walter is not committed, I am not going to invite him to the meeting. Walter, when not invited to the meeting, starts to get less and less involved with the projects. We then have a self-fulfilling prophecy. Read this text to know how to get out of this and give good feedbacks.
Now that we understand more about the nature of conflicts at work, let's talk about strategies to better navigate them.
Improving conflict management at work with more productive conversations
Despite the challenges, conflict management at work is possible. We believe that improving the quality of interactions is essential. But one of the big problems when it comes to having difficult conversations is that we are not clear about our intention when having one. And understanding the different types of conversation that can take place helps a lot in this process. Let's go to 4Ds:
Debate. When we talk about debate, we immediately remember the presidential debates. This type of conversation involves two or more opposing perspectives. The intention behind a debate is always to convince the other of your point of view. In the debate there is a winner and one or more losers.
Discussion. The discussion comprises those conversations that seem to have no end. Usually the intention is to analyze something in depth. This type of conversation requires a lot of focus and a time limit (timebox), to prevent the subject from going on infinitely. Ask a group What promotes the existence of cliques at work? and you will probably have an argument.
Deliberation. Deliberation has to do with decision making. When we want to deliberate about something, in general we want to reach a point of convergence. This type of conversation demands clear proposals and works best when there is a well-defined governance (who makes the decision, how it is made, etc.).
Dialogue. This is the type of conversation that finds less space in the corporate world. And guess what: it is the most effective of all to resolve conflicts! THE dialogue intends to understand things. It demands listening and integrating different perspectives. In this type of conversation we do not seek to resolve things, but only to expand our perception. Our attitude when entering into a dialogue is always one of curiosity.
There is no better type of conversation than another. The important thing is to understand what type you and the people you are talking to want to be with. If one person wants to have a dialogue and the other a debate, it will not work. If you encounter a difficult conversation, clarify your intention and that of the other person before starting it.
Conflict Management with Nonviolent Communication
Another very valuable resource for navigating conflicts at work is Non-Violent Communication. CNV is based on the premise that everyone can have compassion and that we use violence (physical or verbal) when we are unable to find other ways to meet our needs.
Marshall Rosenberg, creator of CNV, identified 4 components to decrease our defensive position and create a more receptive space for others within us.
Note. When talking to someone about something that bothered us, we have two possible paths. See this example:
You are gossiping and disturbing the group.
You talked about Dudu with 4 people, but you didn't talk to him. I did not like that.
In the first alternative, we save words, but we also carry the sentence of judgments and inferences (gossiping and disturbing the group). In the second, the observation of the facts is more precise and we do not add interpretations (you talked about Dudu with 4 people). At CNV, we always prefer to observe the facts (2nd sentence), because we believe that our view of reality is incomplete. Adding judgments only makes the conversation less likely to be successful.
Feeling. When dealing with a conflict at work, we are often faced with a feeling (our own) about what we observe. What is the difference between the two sentences below?
You cannot speak ill of someone behind your back. This is ridiculous!
I am irritated to imagine this happening to me and not knowing how to act now.
The first sentence contains an order (you can't) in addition to a value judgment (ridiculous): two elements that make our language more aggressive. But what matters here is the second sentence. It contains an expressed feeling (I get angry). Feelings are those things that we feel and are difficult to explain: anger, sadness, joy, fear, disgust, etc. It is different from a thought or opinion.
Bringing what you feel into a conversation makes room for vulnerability. Note that when you say "I get angry" you bring the question to yourself, without accusing the other. The feeling is yours and you are responsible for doing something to deal with it.
To understand the different types of feelings and their variations, see the atlas of emotions (in English).
Need. All people share some universal basic needs. In addition to the physiological (air, food, water, shelter, sex), we have the needs of interdependence, such as autonomy, acceptance, appreciation, etc. At this point you should already recognize the difference between these two phrases:
I'm really pissed off because you were fake.
I'm pissed off because it's important for me to be real at work
Although it does not contain one of the words on the list of needs, the second sentence does speak of one (it is important to speak the real one). Perhaps it is a need for honesty, consistency or consideration. The beginning (for me it is important ...) denounces that what is to come is a necessity. Note that in this case, as in the example of feelings, the speaker brings responsibility to himself.
Recognizing needs is painful, but it connects people. We are all able to relate to them, because it is very likely that at some point in our lives we have encountered something similar.
Request. The icing on the CNV cake is the order. Instead of giving an order and commanding a person to act in a certain way, you can place an order! It seems obvious, but in practice it is not that easy.
Stop making a fuss and be more honest with your colleagues
Would you like to talk to the person who has the problem first?
Sometimes asking someone else to act differently can be important to meet our needs. Whenever possible we should look for ways to resolve ourselves, but a request can also help. It is important that it is really a request, not a veiled requirement. The more clear, objective and simple the request, the greater the chance of being fulfilled.
CNV goes far beyond the four steps we detail here. Still, they are a systematic way to improve your communication and conflict management at work.
Identifying dysfunctional dramatic relationships
Conflicts tend to repeat themselves, forming cycles. This is because we can assume some dysfunctional social roles. Stephen Karpman created a model of destructive interactions called the drama triangle, very common in the corporate environment. Watch this video to better understand:
Karpman identified three destructive roles that people commonly assume in conflicts at work and in life:
Victim: The (false) victim stands as helpless in the face of the situation. She does not feel responsible for the facts and prefers not to act, blaming people (or circumstances) for what happens. Victim's phrase: Poor me!
Stalker: The stalker is oppressive, critical and authoritarian with the victim. He says: it's all your fault! Upon realizing the damage done, it is common for the stalker to change his role to victim, apologizing and trying to clarify his intention.
Salvador (or rescuer): The savior appears to take the victim out of the conflict and solve her problem. He is sometimes empathetic, but deep down he has an undisclosed intention in helping the victim. It is common to establish a dependency relationship with her.
Realize that the drama does not happen due to individual characteristics, but due to relationships between roles that are assumed by people.
A victim cannot remain a victim without a stalker or savior. The roles complement each other in their dysfunction and do not exist independently.
The motivation of each participant in the drama is to satisfy some unconscious (or conscious and undisclosed) individual need. The problem is that the strategies to meet these needs are flawed and they do not realize the damage that the drama does to the situation as a whole.
Being aware of the drama triangle can help you adapt your behavior by realizing that you are engaging in this dysfunctional dynamic.
Creating restorative spaces on your team
Finally, contrary to what we hear quite often, we do not believe that there is a clear separation between the “personal self” and the “professional self”. Of course, it is important that you recognize what is part of your needs as an individual and differ from what helps or does not help the organization to succeed and express its purpose. But going to work hiding a part of yourself (or leaving it outside) is not cool.
We believe that people should be able to express themselves fully in the work environment. And that is the key to good conflict management. We call this wholeness.
Part of our work at Target Teal involves helping organizations create these “restorative spaces”, where team members can bring up the most latent issues and establish important conversations. Full name Organic Organization, we have a specific moment for this that we call caring way. If you are interested in promoting these spaces in your organization, check out our free Fundamentals in Self-Organization course below.
Conversation between adults
Conflicts at work are difficult. Having the courage to start a conversation about them is also. However, by avoiding establishing a dialogue, we run the risk of intensifying the drama and making the situation insurmountable. Everything is about behaving and treating people like adults, responsible for their own feelings and needs. In this guide, we present some strategies to improve conflict management at work and create better interactions between people.
Originally written by Davi Gabriel da Silva and published ON HERE